“What is it about this night that makes it different from all other nights?”
We had a seder at our house on Saturday night – the first night of Pesach. On Sunday, we attended a seder at our neighbors’ house. They could not have been more different.
David and I had not hosted a seder for several years. We had been somewhat disappointed in the last few we attended because there was nothing to think about, nothing to talk about. We just paid lipservice to what was written by someone else in some random Passover haggadah. This year we chose to invest a lot of energy into creating something special. We invited a manageable number of guests, who hopefully would be compatible enough, while bringing some diversity to the group – some non-Jewish, varied ages, old friends, new friends, even a Jewish witch (sounds like a contradiction of terms). David went to work on finding a beautiful haggadah, with thought-provoking passages and lovely pictures. I decided to play with some of the pictures and create candle-lit centerpieces for the table. And then I turned to figuring out all the food. The meal is a big part of any seder.
At 6 PM on Saturday our 11 guests arrived and by 6:45 the seder was underway. The room was aglow with candlelight as the sun began to set and David began to read. He had designed the readings to allow a lot of chances for discussion and debate. We started off by talking about whether the story of the Jews in Egypt working for King Pharoah was real or just fiction, which evolved into whether or not Jews are required to believe in God. We passed around Elijah’s cup and everyone added a drop of wine while naming a present-day source of suffering or tragedy in the world. The two youngest children – ages 15 and 17 – asked the 4 questions, which the seder focuses on. The Passover story slowly unfolded as the Jews crossed the Red Sea and headed into the desert. We talked about the significance of the items on the seder plate – the roasted lamb shankbone, the roasted egg, the bitter herbs, the haroset, and the horseradish. We drank the symbolic 4 cups of wine. We sang at appropriate moments throughout the story. At one point our voices joined together to read Martin Luther’s “I have a dream” speech.
By the time we finally were ready to eat, some of the food had been heated for a long time, but this was a case where the quality of the food was not nearly as important as the discussion that had ensued. We ate hard-boiled eggs, homemade gefillte fish with spicy red horseradish, matzoh ball soup, asparagus vinaigrette, caponata, roast duck, beef brisket, mashed potatoes, mushroom kugel, and rhubarb tsimmes. There was no shortage of food!
Then we returned to the Pesach story to bring the Jews out of the desert. The children (teenagers) looked for the hidden Afikommen and quickly found it, earning a small reward. Toward the end we passed around Elijah’s cup once again, this time adding a drop of wine for a blessing we had experienced throughout the past year. As the door was opened for Elijah to enter, David symbolically filled Elijah’s cup to overflowing into a very old cut-glass bowl to acknowledge everyone’s blessings. When we finally ended the seder, which was much later than usual, everyone actually applauded because it had been so meaningful.
Then those of us who remained ate wonderful flourless chocolate desserts, leaving us with sweet memories of a wonderful evening.
The following night we attended a second-night seder at the home of neighbors who had joined us the night before. Their 17-year-old daughter is participating in a group that combines Jews and African Americans in an effort to help them better understand each other’s cultures and to commemorate that they have struggled together to achieve freedom in this country. So the guests included Ryan, one of the African American kids in the group, and his father, Kerrick, who happened to be seated between David and me. This was definitely their first seder. The haggadah was more traditional, using a lot of Thee’s and Thou’s. We skipped most of the Hebrew, probably so as not to overwhelm the guests who didn’t read Hebrew. There was not much opportunity for discussion as we raced the Jews out of Egypt and into the desert. We did go through the Pesach symbols, sometimes not clearly knowing when we were to eat or drink. The food, which in this case had not been reheated too long, was fantastic, as usual. Unfortunately there was no “I have a dream” speech, so probably the most vivid memory of this seder for the African Americans was all of the strange new food.
Two very different seders, but the same theme both nights: the release of the Jews from slavery which launched them into the desert on their way to the promised land. And the eternal hope that next year Jerusalem may know peace.